Sunday, July 17, 2005

Crêpes de Courgettes

As is often the case, especially in the shadow of Bastille Day, I am in something of a Vive la France! mood in the kitchen these days, which explains why I'm calling my most recent culinary innovation something other than "zucchini pancakes." And I am, gentle reader, inundated with zucchini at the moment. V.'s garden includes some indistinct number (no less than two, but perhaps four or five; it is difficult to tell) of giant zucchini plants which are now sending out giant zucchini. V. is (as I trust I have made clear, exaggerated rants about his occasional obstinacy over kitchen space notwithstanding) a terrific guy, but he is not among the world's more adventurous cooks. In fact, I believe he has only one cookbook, something called The Bontempi Cookbook which is named after an Italian woman who either had a cooking show or did a cooking segment on a show that she and her husband had sometime back in the sixties or perhaps the seventies. I really should know more about her since when V.'s old paperback copy of the book had pretty much entirely fallen apart and he was wishing that there were some way to find a new copy but "it's out of print," I devoted at least forty-five seconds of my very valuable time to tracking down a few score of copies on the Internet and ordered him one for Christmas. Anyway, V., like Mrs. Bontempi, is Italian, and he makes Italian food well, but he has a set collection of dishes which he doesn't alter much or experiment with.

So when he makes zucchini, it's always the same. He slices the zucchini a third of an inch thick, and then he puts it in a skillet with olive oil, salt and pepper. Zucchini is very good this way, of course, provided that it's young, not-too-big zucchini. "Not-too-big" is about the last term that you'd use to describe the current crop from the garden, however. This is zucchini that you wouldn't want to meet in a dark alley.

Still, you've got all that big zucchini sitting there, so you've got to come up with a way to use it. If I lived in the Midwest, of course, I could defer the problem by giving the zucchini away. If you live on one of the coasts, or in an inland urban area such as Chicago, you may be unfamiliar with the tradition of the zucchini gift ("zg" for short). It harkens back to an era where food was not always easy to come by and when farmers who were having a year of abundance considered it an act of communitarian good will to leave baskets of vegetables (and the odd baked good) on their neighbors doorsteps. These offerings were given under the cover of darkness so as not to embarrass either the recipients or the donors. Over time, people became either less generous or more focused, and these days the zg is part symbolic act part zucchini disposal method. This practice puts me in mind of old movies wherein destitute unwed mothers bundled babies into baskets and left them on the doorsteps of people with some means of supporting them. I am not sufficiently conversant with the ways of the zg to know whether the people who drop off the zucchini leave notes saying "Please look after these zucchini and provide a good home for them. I'm just not able," but I doubt it, especially since most of the zucchini in question are probably larger than an orphan baby, thought they are, arguably, less demanding. The entire practice is generally ineffectual anyway: you might very well dump some overgrown zucchini on your neighbors, but they're doing the same thing to you, and they might be more aggressive.

Midwestern cooks largely deal with the problem by putting zucchini into preserved relishes and by making a lot of zucchini bread, but I was looking for a solution that allowed me to retain both the zucchini's freshness and its vegetableness. Crêpes de Courgettes is what I came up with.

1.5 pounds fresh zucchini
1 teaspoon salt
1 Tablespoon olive oil
1/4 cup chopped onion
1 clove garlic
1/4 cup milk
1 egg
1 teaspoon dijon mustard
1 teaspoon ground cumin
2 Tablespoons quick-mixing flour (e.g., Wondra)
Another pinch of salt
Freshly ground black pepper

Grate the zucchini, using the largest holes of a cheese grater. Mix the zucchini with the teaspoon of salt and set the mixture in a colander. Set the colander over a bowl. The salting is necessary to remove the unpleasant flavor that larger zucchini developed while weeping bitter tears at having been left so long in the garden.

Heat a nonstick skillet to medium and add the oil and the onion. Cover the onion and sweat (the onion that is; it is not necessary that you sweat personally, though you may) for five minutes, stirring once. Turn off the heat, grate the garlic clove (using the small holes of the grater; or you can just mince or puree them to begin with) into the onions, stir, cover, and let cool.

You will use either a blender or an immersion blender for the next part of the recipe. Put the milk, egg, mustard, cumin, salt, pepper, and flour into the appropriate container and blend briefly. Then add the onions and garlic from the skillet. You do not have to scrape every bit of oil out of the skillet since you are going to cook the pancakes in it. Blend the mixture until it is smooth. If there are some small lumps of onion and garlic in the mixture, they will not hurt anything.

When the zucchini have been sitting about half an hour, take the colander out of the bowl and empty, rinse, and dry the bowl. Put the zucchini into a kitchen towel, twist the mass into a ball, and squeeze as much liquid out of the zucchini as you can (if you have ever seen Julia Child make her straw potato galette, then just do what she did with her potatoes; the difference is that squeezing the zucchini will not leave indelible stains on your kitchen towels). You are not saving this liquid for anything, so you can just squeeze it over the sink. (If you are the sort that hates to throw anything away, I don't know what to tell you. The liquid that comes out of the zucchini is rather an impressive shade of green, however, so I suppose that you could mix the liquid with some very cheap gin, call it a green apple martini, and serve it to your worst enemy. You say you don't have a worst enemy? Just wait until you've served someone this cocktail.)

Turn the stove on medium. Put the skillet back on the stove.

When you've gotten the zucchini as dry as you can, dump it into the bowl, add the liquid mixture that you blended, and mix thoroughly. I prefer to make the pancakes on the small side, about four inches in diameter, but if you like, you may make them larger and serve something else (the meat, perhaps) on top of them. To make the smaller ones, I use a heaping soup spoon (to the extent that the mixture heaps, which is really not all that much) of batter. Drop the batter into the skillet and spread it out with the back of your spoon. The crêpes can be a little bit delicate, so you will want to flip them only once, but they are not so delicate that having to flip them another time will destroy them. It will simply cause you to fret unnecessarily, and we don't want that.

The pancakes can sit around for a few minutes after they're made, but to the extent possible, you want to serve them immediately. This means that they are a good dish to serve when the other foods you're serving are a bit forgiving and don't require split-second timing. Or with something like a roast chicken that needs to be sitting for a bit after it comes out of the oven. In that case, you could make the batter while the chicken's in the oven and then hold it until you pull the chicken out and then make the crêpes while the chicken juices are redistributing themselves.


Anonymous lindy said...

These sound like they would make a fine summer supper on their own- or maybe with a little sour cream (like potato pancakes)?

I think the answer for the excessive zucchini production (in one's own garden) is judicious consumption of the squash blossom, one of the very best things on earth to eat, in my view. I don't grow zucchini anymore, as I am now limited to containers on the porch, but they do show up quite alot in the farmbox I get. I intend to try these,uh, pancakes once I've finished painting my kitchen.

3:29 PM  
Anonymous anapestic said...

Doing something with the blossoms is a great idea. I am embarrassed to admit that I have never cooked any, though I have, of course, seen recipes. What's your preferred method of preparing them?

8:51 PM  
Anonymous lindy said...

There is a great recipe for fried squash blossoms on page 43 of your very large new Gourmet Cookbook. This is my standard method of consuming S B.s, but I suspect anything this good would be terrific prepared other ways too.
I have just never had enough of them to chance an experiment.

6:56 AM  
Anonymous lindy said...

So, I made these and they were very nice indeed, thanks. An inveterate fiddler, I did add some kaffir lime leaves, shredded. ( I have a pretty little kaffir lime tree growing in a pot on my porch and do not make nearly enough southeast asian food to make good use of it. These leaves seem to work happily, though diffently, in places where you might use some cilantro. especially in brothy soups. ) This addition seemed to fit in well with the other flavors in your crepes, which I had for a nice supper.

1:57 PM  
Anonymous lindy said...

That is to say "differently."

1:58 PM  

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